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In 2010.

Aharon Appelfeld says that in order to be a serious writer you need to have a routine. For years his routine has been to write with a Biro on sheets of ordinary white paper in the café at Ticho House, in Jerusalem, which was once the house of a wealthy doctor and where this interview took place.

Appelfeld’s manner, his gestures, and his soft voice recall the vanished provincial Romania of his childhood, where the bourgeoisie retained traces of cosmopolitan Austro-Hungarian culture. The son of a wealthy landowner, he spent his early years speaking German with his parents, Yiddish with his grandparents, Ukrainian with the maid, and Romanian at school.

In 1941, when Appelfeld was nine years old, the Romanian army invaded his home village of Jadova, near Czernowitz. His mother and grandmother were shot. Appelfeld and his father escaped but were soon rounded up and marched, over two months, to the Transnistria concentration camps, where they were separated. Once again Appelfeld escaped. He spent the next two years hiding in the forest, doing odd jobs for a group of prostitutes and thieves. When the Soviet army arrived, in 1944, he joined them as a kitchen boy and eventually made his way, via Italy and Yugoslavia, to Israel. In 1960, he discovered that his father had also survived and come to Israel, and the two were reunited.

The story of Appelfeld’s survival is told in his memoir, The Story of a Life (1999). The war years have also provided material for the majority of his novels, including The Age of Wonders(1978), Tzili (1983), and the book for which he is best known abroad, Badenheim 1939 (1975).

Alain Elkann

 

INTERVIEWER

So you come here to work at Ticho House twice a week?

APPELFELD

Yes. I come here somewhere around ten or eleven. I stay here for two or three hours and then I go home. It’s a routine. Generally, when we say routine, it sounds bad, but routine is important.

INTERVIEWER

You write longhand. How many pages per day?

APPELFELD

One page, sometimes half a page, sometimes one and a half pages. I stop when I am tired—when I do not see more, when I do not hear more.

INTERVIEWER

Then you go home and read what you’ve done?

APPELFELD

Yes, in the late afternoon, after I have had my lunch, I spend another two hours on the same pages, then I leave it. I used to type them. I liked to type them very much. Suddenly you see there is something you have done. It was a joy. But now a woman comes to my house and I dictate. My old typewriter doesn’t work anymore.

INTERVIEWER

You don’t use the computer?

APPELFELD

No, I like the paper. Writing, like every art, is a sensual art. You have to touch it, you have to feel it, to correct, again to correct, always to correct.

INTERVIEWER

You work every day?

APPELFELD

Every day, yes, except Saturday.

INTERVIEWER

Do you go to synagogue?

APPELFELD

Not often, no. When the children were small I used to go, because they liked the synagogue. I like to sit at home on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and read the prayer book and the mahzor of Yom Kippur.

INTERVIEWER

You are religious?

APPELFELD

Not religious—I am not a member of a community or a synagogue. Really, my devotion to writing is my religion. There are other aspects of my religion, but mainly it is to be with myself, for many hours. My parents were assimilated, nonpracticing Jews. My father was very antireligious when he was young. It was a kind of revolt against his father. His father was very religious, very tough and religious.

INTERVIEWER

In your books you write about your other grandfather, your mother’s father, who was also very religious and who lived in the country.

APPELFELD

Yes, he was a farmer. He was a different kind of religious Jew. He appreciated silence very much. His religion was silence. He didn’t speak much, but what he told me was always very, very meaningful to me, and remained with me. I learned Yiddish in his house. My parents both knew Yiddish, of course, but their orientation was toward the world, the universal. They spoke an Austro-Hungarian German, because every province had a dialect. Ours was a Jewish province. The Jews spoke a softer German than the normal German.

INTERVIEWER

The German spoken by your parents, you said later, was similar to the German of Franz Kafka.

APPELFELD

Yes, Franz Kafka—of all the writers, Franz Kafka. When I read him, he was immediately familiar to me.

INTERVIEWER

So you had a secular upbringing but with some knowledge of religion from your grandparents?

APPELFELD

Yes, I was very close to my maternal grandparents. My grandfather taught me a lot. To give you an example, he used to get up in the morning and pray, but before praying he would open the windows. He said to me, There should not be a barrier between us and God. If the windows are closed and the shutters are closed you cannot speak directly to God. This was something I will not forget. I’ll give you another example. He used to touch every object with great care. I am not just speaking about books. Hebrew books he used to kiss before opening and after closing the book, but he had care for everything— glasses and bottles, for instance.

INTERVIEWER

Why?

APPELFELD

Because they have something of the holy.

INTERVIEWER

Of the holy?

APPELFELD

Yes. You know, God is everywhere. He is in the human heart. He is in the plants. He is in the animals. Everywhere. You have to be very careful when you speak to human beings because the man who is standing in front of you has something divine in himself. Trees, they have something divine in them. Animals of course. And even objects, they have something of the divine.

INTERVIEWER

Your grandfather came to live with you at the end of his life. Did he and your father get along?

APPELFELD

My father highly appreciated him, because he appreciated his piety, but he could not follow his way. My mother loved her father very much indeed, and in his presence she became very religious. Not praying, but her love was a kind of devotion.

INTERVIEWER

Your life was a secure life when you were a child?

APPELFELD

A very secure life.

INTERVIEWER

Where were you when your mother was killed? I am sorry to make you go back to something very sad.

APPELFELD

We were with my grandmother at the farm. The Romanians and Germans came and they shot my mother and my grandmother. It was in the summer of ’41. I was nine and a half years old. She was thirty-one. I am now eighty-two. My mother will always remain young and I am going to be very old. She was a beautiful woman.

INTERVIEWER

Were you with your father when they killed your mother?

APPELFELD

I was ill with the mumps, and suddenly I heard shooting. My mother was in the courtyard. My father was with some people outside. When I heard shooting, I jumped out the window. There was a field of corn, and I jumped into the field of corn.

INTERVIEWER

You jumped? Without thinking of your mother?

APPELFELD

Yes, I was afraid of the shooting.

INTERVIEWER

And?

APPELFELD

And then I found my father. And both of us went to Czernowitz, on foot. We stayed in the ghetto. Then we were taken to the camp, and I was separated from my father. I was alone with women and children. Every day some of them died. I escaped the camp. When I escaped it was ’41, before the electric fences.

INTERVIEWER

You escaped by yourself?

APPELFELD

By myself, yes.

INTERVIEWER

But you were a little boy—elegant, not particularly courageous. What happened? How did you transform yourself into a child capable of escape?

APPELFELD

It was a kind of transformation—I became a small animal. It was the wish for life, the wish to survive.

INTERVIEWER

Primo Levi wrote that in the camp everybody was a thief because the only thing was to survive.

APPELFELD

I highly appreciate his writing, but this is not my conception. In such a situation, there are no morals. You should not judge people in such a situation. People became something that they did not wish to become.

INTERVIEWER

So in what sense don’t you agree with Levi?

APPELFELD

Because you cannot judge people in such a situation. Most of them, after a month or two weeks, died because they could not exist in such a way.

INTERVIEWER

And as a child you saw many people dying?

APPELFELD

Of course. But you become a bit indifferent. You see and you do not see. What can you do?

INTERVIEWER

After you met your father again, nineteen years later, in Israel, did you ever ask him why he didn’t go to Switzerland or to America or to England to escape the Nazi danger? He had been a rich man.

APPELFELD

Yes, this is a question I asked him. I do not know all the parts of his business, but most of it was in this one place. It was not as if he had investments in Switzerland. His investments were land, woods, mills. They were in Romania, and he could not sell them, so he could not move.

INTERVIEWER

In your books you describe the years you spent as a child in the woods. During those years, what language were you speaking?

APPELFELD

All kinds of languages.

INTERVIEWER

What kind of memories do you have? In which language?

APPELFELD

I had just finished first grade when it happened. When I was in first grade, my mother used to read a story to me every night, converse with me, and so on. When I lived in the woods, my conception of the world was totally existential. Food, a coat, shoes, shelter—these were the problems. Other thoughts were not in my mind. They came later, when I began to write. My life was blind, it could not have any words, but when I began to write about my childhood—and I have written a lot—it came up.

INTERVIEWER

How did you begin writing in Hebrew?

APPELFELD

I was fourteen years old when I came to Israel. I was alone, in a group of young people, and totally disoriented. Everyone was speaking a different language, but slowly. What can you say after seeing so many dead people, after seeing so much pain? After a big catastrophe, you lose words. Every word is a stupid word when you use it.

INTERVIEWER

And you didn’t feel like a German speaker?

APPELFELD

I felt myself as a beaten person, who had been beaten for many years. And I couldn’t explain it. I could not understand what had happened to me.

INTERVIEWER

But your mother’s language was German.

APPELFELD

Of course it was German. But mine was a kind of childish German—German that children use—with no connotations.

INTERVIEWER

You didn’t abandon German for ideological reasons? Because German was the language of the Nazis?

APPELFELD

Not at all. Even today sometimes, when I am writing and I am looking for a word, for a Hebrew word, suddenly there comes a German word, from nowhere! But I understood that German could not be my language anymore. Even though it’s my mother language and even though, in my dreams, I still sometimes speak German, Hebrew became my adopted mother tongue. And with it, I became very free, maybe because it’s not my language. In the army, I started reading Hebrew literature. It was difficult. It’s a very tough language. For example, in the Bible, sentences are very short, very factual, there are few adjectives, so it’s only facts or deeds. Also, I had acquired a day-to-day Hebrew but not a literary Hebrew. So I was reading but not understanding. Still, I had to prepare myself for the examinations at the university. My mother had wanted me to be a doctor or lawyer or an academician, and I wanted to follow her wishes.

Also, I wanted to become a Jew, a full Jew. To be a Jew, the first stage was to acquire Hebrew.

INTERVIEWER

But many Jews don’t speak Hebrew.

APPELFELD

Of course, but I wanted to acquire knowledge, the biblical Hebrew, the medieval Hebrew, the Hebrew of Kabbalah, the Hasidic Hebrew, the philosophical Hebrew, and so on. I wanted to know everything that is connected with Jewish belief, the Jewish way of life, law, the rabbinic law, the mystical law. I had a feeling that my generation—and me, also—we were naked. We did not belong to anything. Zionism wanted us to become “normal.” This was not my feeling. When I started at university, my teachers had come to Israel from Germany. They came not to be normal Jews but to become Jewish.

INTERVIEWER

How did you start writing?

APPELFELD

I was very alone. No parents, no friends. I asked myself, What do I need? Why am I working in the fields? What will happen to me? Where is my life going? I had nothing. So then one day I made a list. My father, his name, Michael—I wrote that. My mother, Bunia. My grandfather, Meir Joseph. I wrote, I was born in Czernowitz and my mother was killed. This list gave me a ground I understood. I was not alone. I still had my family. They exist in me. I made myself a family on paper. I wrote it down, and they became real.